In July of 2005, Sheila Cardwell, a nurse from St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah attended a presentation by a colleague who just returned from a volunteer experience with Project HOPE helping tsunami victims in Indonesia. Little did she know, just a few weeks later she would answer a similar call to help, offering her time and medical expertise to help Project HOPE respond to a catastrophe closer to home-Hurricane Katrina.
"It has been a life-long dream of mine to be part of a humanitarian aid project, especially after having lost my beloved husband in an avalanche several years ago," Sheila says. "When the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, I immediately contacted Project HOPE."
Just a few days later, she joined a team of nearly 60 Project HOPE volunteers on their way to Gulfport, Biloxi, and Moss Point Mississippi aboard the US Navy Ship Comfort. "It was a crazy, miraculous set of events perfectly aligned that allowed me to drop everything and go so quickly," she says. Her fellow nurses gladly filled her scheduled shifts at work. And while she was prepared to take paid time off to volunteer, St. Mark's Hospital stepped up to cover her salary while Sheila worked to help those injured by the devastating hurricane.
Sheila immediately began giving tetanus shots to workers and provided a wide variety of treatment. She also spent a lot of time going door to door, giving out food and water while checking on victims who needed treatment and medicine.
"There was tragedy and sadness and even sometimes fear," Sheila says. "At times we would leave the van door open to allow for a quick retreat. In one area a man was running around with a gun looking for the mailman who he hoped was bringing him a relief check," she remembers. "It was surreal to see people living in houses with no roofs or doors, their furniture in the trees and personal belongings scattered for miles. I found myself depressed by the needs and what little I felt I had to offer, but I was far too busy to dwell on that feeling."
Sheila's experience took an educational tone at times as she taught moms how to care for their babies in dire circumstances and helped people learn to correctly use the Clorox being given out by the Salvation Army. "Many were receiving burns because they didn't know they were to use eight drops per gallon of water and wait for 30 minutes before use. "
She also encountered many diabetic children who needed help controlling their blood sugar and getting insulin. "They were eating 3,000 - 5,000 calorie MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) given out as part of the relief effort and it was throwing their systems out of whack," she says.
When she reflects on all that she couldn't do to solve problems, Sheila recalls a situation where a cell phone became a hero for one single mom who was stuck in a destroyed home with a traumatized 11-year-old diabetic.
Sheila used a blood sugar kit and then helped the mom to make calls to find a place to escape the horrible and dangerous area. Within three days the family had a place to go. Sheila's support, ideas for resources, and the use of her magical cell phone gave the family real hope and direction.
Amidst the catastrophic conditions, Sheila also remembers children laughingly following the Red Cross van as if it were an ice cream truck. There was another group of children collecting bike parts in a trash can, happy to be on a kind of treasure hunt. "It was impressive to see the resiliency and strength of the youth," she says.
Sheila returned from her volunteer experience along the Gulf Coast inspired to do more. She has since volunteered for Project HOPE five additional times using her nursing skills in other parts of the world including Belize, Guatemala, Vietnam, Haiti and Indonesia.
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